David, Metropolitan of Alaverdi
David, Metropolitan of Alaverdi: «Wine is existence in both heaven and on earth»
Interview by Oleg Cherne
The Alaverdi monastery is a special space. Here, time seems to be frozen, maintaining its own special purity and rhythm; the architecture speaks its own language, and behind people’s eyes is a depth and purity of mind. Here, everything starts with a prayer and ends with a prayer. Plus, the wine they produce is second to none. Alaverdi exudes deep tradition at every step. Indeed, the place is very lively and popular among wine experts, and the monastery is constantly receiving new guests. «We tried to combine the new and the old in our work, and that’s how we made our wine so special,» says monastery bishop David, Metropolitan of Amba Alaverdi, of his internationally recognized and expertly rated product.
The monastery in Alaverdi has taken upon itself a special mission to popularize traditional Georgian winemaking and prove that their process isn’t just unique, but the best in the world by certain characteristics. And as luck would have it, I had the chance to see it with my own eyes.
In Georgia, it is believed that a wine takes after its maker. The main presence of the monastery is lord David, so we can already consider the wine of Alaverdi to be blessed. Lord visits the winery five times a day (sometimes more often) and blesses this wonderful wine with prayer.
— Good afternoon, lord. I find myself in such an extraordinary place, imbued with the full spirit of history and a one-of-a-kind atmosphere. Please, tell us a little about Alaverdi.
— If we’re talking about the meaning of this word, then «alaverdi» mean «bestowed by God.»
— How old is your monastery? What makes it different from the others?
— The monastic complex here was built in the late 10th – early 11th century. It is likewise notable that scientists date the marani, or the monastery complex’s wine cellar, back to the 8–10th century. Our cathedral was also considered the tallest temple in Georgia until 2002. Today you can even still see frescoes dating back to the 15th century.
Alaverdi is a monastic complex in Kakheti, Georgia, located in the Alazani Valley, near the village of Alaverdi. Here in the middle of the 6th century, the monastery was founded by one of thirteen Assyrian fathers, Saint Joseph, who was then buried in this place. Alaverdi used to be the main cathedral in the Principality of Kakheti (8–10th centuries).
Then it is believed that Alaverdi monastery was transformed into the episcopal cathedral in the first quarter of the 11th century, when the Kakhetian king Kvirike III built a large cathedral here instead of the small church of St. George.
Today’s Metropolitan of Alaverdi, Avva (Amba) Alaverdi, is in fact the head of the church throughout Kakheti. Bishops bear the honorary title of «Avva» Alaverdi, as they are also the Fathers Superior of the monastery.
The height of the Cathedral of St. George is about 50 m, and the height of the interior is over 42 m.
— So, in reality this is a living museum, a functioning relic, if you will.
— You know, it’s not really right to say this is a museum. It is, and it isn’t. And it’s not about ethnography here either, although it’s also ethnography to some extent as well, because it has an entryway dated to the 17th century, a water pipe from the 15th century, a vessel from the 11th century… But humanity is now walking into the 21st century, and we, the monks, continue to work on what’s happening here.
The aroma of wine animates everything here. For instance, what time is it now? No one has closed the marani yet, so no one will say: «Everything is already closed, you can’t come in…» No one will ever say this. If you want to enter, you are welcome. It happens sometimes that people come from the city, they ask something on their way, they might stop for the night…
Sometimes they come to the monastery at midnight. And even though I might be exhausted, I’ll say: «Father Gerasim, open the marani.» Then we go in, walk and look around, smell some things and taste others, ending the evening by heading up to bed. We read our prayers, and the next day gather with renewed energy to start the new day together.
The spirit and soul are essential. The world is already filled to the brim with museums.
— I want to single out one more unique feature of Alaverdi, mainly its ancient traditions of monastic winemaking!
— Yes, as you know, these vineyards have been growing around the monastery since the old days, and the monks have always taken care of them. Remarkable wines have always been made, and still continue to be made from grapes harvested according to the ancient Kakhetian method. We mature it in kvevri, or traditional clay vessels buried in the ground in the marani. By the way, I strongly oppose using the term «jar» in English, because «kvevri» fits so much better. It is like a model or brand, and people always consciously try to use this word «kvevri» in other languages as well.
— Kvevri also has its own special form. First of all, this vessel has a certain purpose, so it can be confused with all kinds of other uses if you just say «jar.»
— You’re absolutely right. In Georgia, kvevri wine is an ancient tradition dating back 8,000 years. Scientists have proven that winemaking has existed in Georgia since that time, and thus, our country is referred to as the cradle of wine and grapes.
— You know, even the very area surrounding Alaverdi seems unique. I get the feeling that time has stopped here, and everything is imbued with a certain grace and calm.
— We try to consciously maintain this atmosphere. For instance, it is strictly forbidden to take photos in the monastery, so as not to break this peace. Plus we’re not ready to see just anyone here, and sometimes we can even deny admission. We have certain requirements for the appearance and behavior of people visiting the monastery, which is all necessary for people to stop their minds, recall who they are and focus on their actions, so they can «taste» our space in all senses of the word.
— Tell me about your monastery’s marani.
— Currently, we have about 50 kvevri vessels. Some of them are several hundred years old. In 2005, we reconstructed the marani completely, and since then wines prepared according to ancient Kakhetian recipes have been maturing here. Unlike in the European tradition, we leave in the mash, or grape seeds. But we also prepare wines based on European recipes as well.
— Please tell us, do you think it’s difficult to bring a new wine on the world market today?
— The general interest towards monastic wine has always been present, and today it is also quite high. Many European monasteries make their own wine and offer it through their stores. Of course, these aren’t large-scale sales because we do not want to have a commercial scope. Our task is different, to introduce people to a different taste of wine, a special ideology of attitude to life through wine, perhaps a special internal culture… And ultimately, to present Georgian winemaking traditions, which are the oldest on the planet according to archaeological data.
As far as I know, the oldest grape seeds ever found were uncovered during archaeological excavations in Georgia. Meaning seeds from grapes that have already been cultured. One genetic study of this culture conducted in Pennsylvania showed that 98.2% of the world’s grapes spread from Georgia. According to the published report, it turns out that all grape varieties are simply subspecies derived from Georgian grapes.
The church has never considered wine as something that should intoxicate a person, cloud one’s head or lead «into sin.» Wine in the church symbolizes the blood of Christ, as the power it possesses is the power of nutrition, the power to strengthen our spirit, and the power to purify.
— Do you think you manage to convey this message to visitors of exhibitions and experts at different wine contests and championships?
— I believe so. We work hard on what we do, and this is our message and our mission. We first gained recognition in Georgia by receiving a medal at the Georgian Wine Competition. When we were exhibiting in London, we were also invited to visit Jensis Robinson, who ranked our Alaverdi wine very high. I think that experts catch not just the wine’s taste, but also its state, or the particular atmosphere it creates.
We try to reveal the concept of Georgian wine to the world, and are active in cultural education. The traditional congress of winemakers was held in Georgia in 2010, and the first symposium of Georgian wine took place in Georgia in 2011, including wines from kvevri. The organizer of these symposiums was in fact the Alaverdi Monastery.
— Indeed, the mission that drives you is a special one…
— Yes. And the symposium participants thanked us and were very pleased that it was actually the Alaverdi Monastery preserving this way of traditional Georgian winemaking for the whole world. Today, I receive lots of guests from various countries around the world, at least ten a week. This includes French and Italian winemakers, who come here to consult on the kvevri winemaking method.
Scientists come visit us as well, but they do not yet understand on a scientific level what exactly happens, where such good wine comes from, and how we get it. They only ask themselves: what is the scientific method we can use to make wine like this?
— Perhaps the place itself is special, consecrated…
— Of course, the reason is that this is a monastery. We begin everything with prayer and finish with prayer. It is difficult to find another monastery like this that also has a marani. If a person doesn’t like this occupation and doesn’t like wine, then it won’t work. And vice versa, the more he loves wine and winemaking, the better and higher-quality drink he gets.
— What are the monks’ attitude to drinking wine? Is it permitted for them to consume it?
— When it is allowed according to the Typikon (the law the monastery lives by), then we drink wine. We drink white wine every day, and red wine is used during worship. Both categories of wine, white and red, are quite good, so we can say that we use them on equal terms. Monks here can drink wine every week, except for the Great Fast. Plus, there are two more fasting days during the week, Wednesday and Friday, when we don’t drink wine.
For us it’s not just the liquid we drink. Wine for us is a sacred drink that should be treated with respect… One particular psalm says that wine pleases a man’s soul. So this joy has two sides: one side is your spirit, and the other is your soul. This is the core of the matter. The Bible clearly states, in the words of King David, that wine pleases a man’s heart, but at the same time Paul the Apostle warns: «Do not get drunk on wine, for then it can turn you into mud, and it becomes mud itself.» Therefore, drinking wine in moderation goes without saying. Measure is the wisdom to know your own measure when drinking, which means to have wisdom.
And by the way, our monks are also guides for the marani, as they’re are ones who know all the details and peculiarities of creating Alaverdi wines!
— In fact, we’re talking about wine as a space, not just as a liquid or drink.
— Yes, I perceive it like this as well… a space, not a liquid. In general, a Georgian man’s attitude towards wine is a complete lifestyle. Just as a man cannot exist without food, so he cannot exist without wine. A Georgian feast and food without wine is not a feast at all. We call the person who heads the feast a tamada (or toastmaster). The tamada is not only the person who pronounces toasts, he also blesses everyone who takes part in the feast. He says a toast to each participant individually, blessing and praising them.
In addition to mentioning the participants of the feast, the tamada always also says toasts to bless parents, the motherland, children, ancestors, etc. And this blessing with wine becomes a bridge between the ancestors and future generations. Thanks to the tamada, it passes over from generation to generation.
— That makes it sound like some kind of liturgy…
— Yes, it’s very similar to a sacred liturgy… no, not similar, it’s just like it! It’s a direct transfer, for just as the service begins with the praising of God, so does the Georgian feast. Everything is blessed during the feast just like in the holy liturgy. And Georgian feasts end with thanking the Holy Mother of God, just like in the holy ritual. It also begins with the praise of God and ends with praise for the Holy Mother of God. Therefore, feasts are also a sacred ritual for the Georgians.
— An unusual approach…
— Yes, the rest of the world doesn’t understand why we say toasts, or why we sit at the table for so long. This is because we communicate together with our wine. This has been a Georgian tradition since the oldest times. At feasts people drink wine and always say a toast, in other words, they express their inner self…
This is a custom for us in Kakheti: wine isn’t hypocritical, it always speaks the truth right to your face. By looking at the person who stands up and speaks, one can immediately see the way the wine influences him and the way he expounds in his speech. So wine is a spiritual joy, and this joy can be conveyed to others via a good toast or song.
— Tell us a little about the oenologist of your estate.
— He’s a well-respected specialist named Dr. Teimuraz Glonti, and used to work at the Institute of Winemaking. We first met in 2006, and right after that started working together. When this older guy, a true professional and professor, said that wine used to be made this way or that way, we accepted it and started following his advice. Now everyone who comes to Georgia to visit our monastery is surprised, almost like «how do you do all that here?» But in fact, the answer is simple: everything is born of heaven. We have always believed, accepted and followed the advice of our oenologist…
So, we stick to our concept that wine shouldn’t be made into a business, and should be made with a clear conscience. For the human soul, with honesty. Then your work will be much more rewarding, not just an endless chase for profits. This is what you can see in our marani.
Most importantly, we follow the traditional, old technology of making wine. Indeed, one can view the church as a conservative society. We take care to preserve the old, but at the same time try to make it fit in with newer, present-day circumstances. So the essence and meaning is not to lose the old, and not to stand with our backs towards progress. We tried to make these goals a reality in our marani, which is how we produced such a quality wine.
But that’s true for all spheres: first we try to study the old, and then we take small, medium or large steps.
— That’s where your fundamental approach comes from.
— Yes, to keep things deeper than just the surface level. Our ancestors dictate what direction we should take, and what our scope should be. Therefore, it’s crucial we study the old closely and try to stick to it. For instance, how did our ancestors treat certain things, what were they thinking about? We try to feel all this from a distance, to embrace it and only then take steps forward. It’s actually hard not to follow this pattern, as without learning the old, we cannot move forward.
And even though now we don’t have the same financial resources for research as we used to before, I always say to myself: God bless you, lord, not having enough money isn’t so bad. The most important thing is that you can take time to think and go all the way through things in your mind…
Gradually, step by step. In today’s modern world, you can find lots of money, but not a lot of time. Time is always critically short, and everyone is always in such a hurry.
— What’s the main characteristic of wine from Alaverdi, in your opinion?
— In a way, our wines are very difficult to define. But to answer your question, we might put it like this: this wine is bestowed upon us by God. For a Georgian, wine is existence in both heaven and on earth.
Of course, there are varying opinions about Georgian wine, but the fact is that we’re trying to preserve traditions here: we make wine only from the grape varieties we harvest in our own vineyards, and we don’t add or mix it with anything. It has a natural taste and a natural aroma.
— What grape varieties are you talking about here?
Currently, we make six wine types from six different grape varieties in our marani. They are all traditional for this area: Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Kisi, Khikhvi, Rose Rkatsiteli and Saperavi. Wines from these varieties mature quite differently in terms of flavor, color and taste. And people can form their own opinions on them, like what exactly is a Rkatsiteli wine? Or what is Kisi or Khikhvi wine? You really have to master it. People who come to visit us should know that Rkatsiteli looks, smells and tastes like this … pure Rkatsiteli.
And using this as a basis, you can do a hundred or two hundred experiments for yourself, mixing Rkatsiteli with Kisi, Khikhvi and so on. Then you can create hundreds of new wines!
But this isn’t what we’re after. We simply do what’s laid out for us in terms of traditional winemaking and our traditional approach to wine. It’s important for us to provide people a good example of how to approach this craft. Not for money, but for our own clean conscience.
— How much wine does your monastery estate produce?
— If we bottle it all, it’s somewhere around 50,000 bottles. And this is a large volume for us. We normally try to stick more to an average of 15,000–20,000 bottles.
But in fact, this is kind of a brief message for the whole world: look what marvelous wines exist in this world! We use it to signal our existence…
At the same time, we also want people from all corners of the earth to visit our monastery, because in order to fully embrace this wine, you need to take it and drink it in this very environment. You have to see our 8th-century marani with your own eyes!
We also have a beekeeping farm, so the honey you’ve seen being sold here is ours as well. We have no secret, we just try to blend the old with the new in our approach, because without the old method, without tradition, the new can never survive. If a person loses their tradition and history, the old approach and their good faith with all its roots, he can’t go on living.
— I find myself thinking that I want to keep coming back to your monastery again and again…
— We’re trying to protect the space of Alaverdi with all our might, because we live here, pray, work and entertain guests… When people ask: «How many monks live here?» –people think they’ll hear an answer like: «One hundred monks.» But in fact, there are just four of us, including myself.
Believe me, it’s a very demanding process to accept people and organize various meetings. It’s important for us to continue on the traditions of quality and maintain the spirit of this sacred place. After all, this architecture and environment is created solely by us, simple monks. And anyone who comes here notices it and pays attention.
What we do here is more than just winemaking for us. To be able to practice winemaking in a monastery is a blessing.